July 19, 2005

Senate committee approves $1.4 bln for Amtrak

By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate appropriations subcommittee
proposed a sharp boost in an annual subsidy for Amtrak on
Tuesday, approving a record $1.4 billion for the cash-poor

The rail measure was cleared as part of an annual
transportation spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct.
1. The legislation still must be considered by the
Appropriations Committee and the full Senate after that.

One lawmaker said he was warned by a senior Bush
administration official that a veto threat was possible over
the Amtrak money.

Approval by the Senate subcommittee reflected widening
congressional support for continued Amtrak subsidies despite
opposition from the administration.

The White House proposed no subsidy for Amtrak next year
beyond emergency funding, prompting critics to complain the
executive branch wants to bankrupt the system and overhaul rail
service with less federal support.

The House of Representatives approved more than $1.17
billion for Amtrak in June. Lawmakers also stripped a provision
that would force Amtrak to halt its most unprofitable routes,
many of which continue to exist because individual lawmakers
want them.

Amtrak sought $1.8 billion for the next fiscal year. But
David Gunn, Amtrak's president and chief executive, said the
Senate's proposed $1.4 billion, or 16 percent increase over
current funding, would ensure continuation of the rail line's
program to upgrade tracks, tunnels and other parts of its aging

Gunn said the railroad has "held the line" on certain costs
and directed more money for capital improvements by cutting
expenses, reducing the railroad's headcount by 20 percent and
running additional trains to generate more revenue. Amtrak is
slowly returning its high-speed Acela trains to service in the
Northeast after a brake disc problem.

But the Transportation Department wants bigger changes,
including deeper cost cuts, potential privatization of routes
and greater financial participation and oversight by states.

Some reforms were included in the Senate plan, including
one that would ban the use of subsidies to cover losses on food
and beverage services estimated at $100 million annually.

But Sen. Christopher Bond, a Missouri Republican and
chairman of the appropriations subcommittee, said he had been
warned by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta that he would
recommend a veto if Congress ignores the administration's
demand for Amtrak reforms.

A spokesman for Mineta, Robert Johnson, would not confirm
Mineta's purported veto threat and said transportation planners
were reviewing the Senate bill.